Breaking the Quorum For Fun and Profit

Dear Wisconsin Legislators:

We Texans know a little something about quorum breaks. Because there’s no problem so big that it can’t be run from.

In 1979, a group of 12 Texas Senators, dubbed the “Killer Bees,” broke quorum over an elections bill and hid out several blocks from the capitol in a garage apartment. After a few days, then-Lt. Governor Bill Hobby, who was presiding over the Texas Senate, backed down from the legislation in question, and the bees returned to the hive. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” took notice however, and the classic “killer bees” skit featuring John Belushi was born.

In 2003, Texas legislators staged two quorum breaks to stop Tom DeLay’s mid-decade Congressional redistricting plan. During the regular session, more than 50 House Democrats, the “Killer D’s” slipped across the Oklahoma border into the Ardmore, Oklahoma Holiday Inn for 5 days. Oklahoma was the destination because it was out of reach of Texas authorities trying to apprehend them, and 5 days was the duration because that’s how long it would take to move beyond a legislative deadline for the bill to move forward. The Democrats’ efforts were successful, and the redistricting plan was killed for the regular legislative session. This marks a unique point in American history in which the State of Oklahoma actually had a valid reason to exist.

After Texas Governor Rick Perry called a 30-day special session to revive the redistricting plan, 11 Senate Democrats were able to kill the legislation for that session by blocking it under the “two-thirds rule.” meaning that it takes two-thirds of the Senate to bring up a bill. Since there are 31 Senators, 11 Senate Democrats voting against bringing up the bill kept it bottled up.

But at the end of that first special session, it became common knowledge that the Governor would call a second 30 day special session, during which there would be no two-thirds rule protection, and 11 of the 12 Senate Democrats, the “Texas 11,” secretly left the Capitol, went to the airport, and boarded two airplanes which were standing by to carry them to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for what was ultimately a 46-day quorum break.

I was on the plane with them to Albuquerque, and stayed with them the entire time staffing the effort.

It was, unfortunately, not the longest quorum break in American history – but that’s only because a few hundred years ago, the rural farmers who constituted a state legislature in one of the original 13 colonies broke the quorum, returned to their farms, and just never came back, ever. That nobody ever looked for them or tried to get them back means the quorum breaking curve for all other state legislators for all time will be completely screwed up, so DAMN YOU FARMERS!

But having been at the center of the second place effort, I do have a few tips for Wisconsin legislators:

1. If you’re not already together in the same place, you better quickly get together in the same place. A quorum break is a big commitment, in every way – psychologically, legislatively, financially, and tactically. Legislators need to look at each other in the eye on a continuing basis to measure the commitment of the others breaking the quorum, and so you can express your own.

2. If you’re not already all out of state, you’re kidding yourselves and you’ll probably fail: get out of state. As long as you remain in your home state, law enforcement officials can apprehend you and carry you against your will back to the state Capitol. They will eventually succeed. Yes, I know that you only told your spouse, your best friend, and your chief of staff where you were hiding. And I know you swore them to secrecy. And they only told 126 people, and swore them to secrecy. If you’re still in Wisconsin, I’m guessing you have about 12 more minutes to GTF out.

3. However much you think this will cost, multiply that times 10. You’re the mouse, they’re the cat. Being the mouse is more expensive. Also, being the away-team is more expensive. Good luck with that – it’s a strain under the best of circumstances. Figure out your state’s campaign finance laws to see what help you can get, then get it.

4. It is easier for your opposition to communicate their message than it is for your side. And the longer the quorum break lasts, the more that will be true. By definition, when you broke the quorum, you ceded home-team advantage to the other team. You didn’t just leave your state capitol – you also left your state’s capitol press corps behind. Your opposition can and will simply walk down the hall to chat it up to your favorite reporters in order to share their point of view. Do whatever you need to do in order to lure a critical mass of reporters to your location as well, then feed the beast. The traveling press corps will need a story every day to justify the expense to their editors of being there. In 2003, it got ridiculous – what new thing could we possibly share with reporters on day 34, that hadn’t already been shared on days 1-33? Think out-of-the-box if you have to – we even resorted to shirt ironing contests between Senators. But one way or another, find a way to hold reporters hostage or they’ll leave town, and you’ll be unable to communicate with your supporters and constituents.

5.  It’s not all policy-based – some of it is personal. Legislators are human beings, with all the trials and tribulations all folks go through. Be sensitive to that, or you’ll lose ’em. In the case of the Texas 11, one had recently had a heart attack, and another had a baby he had never seen, and couldn’t as long as he remained in exile. A third was very concerned about his aging mother’s health. Others in the group need to be sensitive to these realities. At the least, you should demonstrate that you care. At the most, find ways to ease the stresses associated with those challenges.

6. Every individual in a quorum break has a skill, and every individual needs a role. Put each person in charge of something – they’ll feel more like they’re a crucial member of the team. Leave no one as a mere spectator to the show.

7. Even if it doesn’t ultimately become true, each of those breaking a quorum will believe that somebody’s going to be defeated in their next election because of this situation. When they’re breaking the quorum, they won’t know whether its your team, or the other team, but it’ll be somebody. Acknowledge the fear, because it contributes to the ultimate commitment. Nobody knows the true political cost or benefit to a quorum break as they’re sneaking away from their capitol building – but they know either is potentially high. That makes the least among you very principled, and very important. Acknowledge the commitment on a regular basis, and let them know that it is deeply appreciated.

8. And if all else fails, take Texas state Senator Leticia Van de Putte’s advice. She led the 2003 quorum break to Albuquerque. And she’s in favor of conjugal visits by legislators’ spouses. If some of the legislators in question don’t have a spouse? Improvise. IfyaknowwhatImean.



6 Responses to Breaking the Quorum For Fun and Profit

  1. Pamela Mayo February 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    Once again, you managed to pack vital information into an amusing read. Am still chuckling. Well done! ~pamela mayo clark

  2. whiskeydent February 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    FUB, I believe it’s my personal duty to point out one omitted necessity: Whiskey. Lots of whiskey.

  3. FUBAR February 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Whiskeydent – while my suggestions weren’t meant to be all-inclusive, this particular omission was, admittedly, unforgivable.

  4. Doug Zabel February 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    I believe that the Saturday Night Live killer bees came first; the Ben Sargent cartoon on the yellow t-shirts in Texas was a take-off on the SNL bees.

    One day during the Killer Bee senators’ unexcused absence in ’79, a reporter asked Lt. Gov. Hobby why he thought the DPS couldn’t find them and bring them in. After pausing a couple of seconds, he replied, “The DPS couldn’t catch the clap in a two-dollar whorehouse.” The next day, the state’s major papers each had their own paraphrases: “The DPS couldn’t catch a social disease in an inexpensive brothel,” etc. Great times!

  5. FUBAR February 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Doug, you might be right about the chronology of the SNL skit. And…GREAT quote.

  6. Anonymous February 26, 2011 at 1:59 am #

    Doug is right.
    Anybody wanna buy a T-Shirt?

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